Television came in black and white. In those days, technology meant the atomic bomb and breaking the sound barrier.
Still, it was a marvel in 1948 to sit on the floor at James Clarke’s house on Birchwood Road in Garfield Heights, where we’d stare up at a small television set, its screen enhanced by a thick magnifier, and eagerly await the hum of the test pattern to break into the hoof beats of a grainy Western.
Jimmy Clarke had one of the first TVs in our neighborhood. We befriended him in battalions to get a chance to sit in his living room and watch the pioneering moments of television. Jimmy’s mother made memorable ham salad sandwiches that I can still taste while channel-surfing.
Today the television set and the phone are bundled together with Internet service in a technological nightmare of wires, wireless routers, digital deliverance, tongue-twisting terminology and billing that requires the scrutiny of a steely-eyed accountant.
For me, it began several years ago with two college-aged women. I was cutting figure eights in my lawn with my red Sears riding mower when they approached me and smiled their engaging smiles, their eyes bright with commerce. They were selling AT&T. If I signed up today, they promised, I could have every movie channel plus dozens more obscure and arcane broadcasts.
“Sign me up,” I said with a cheery and charitable decisiveness I would regret each month when the bill came.
Over time, it was clear that my wife and I watched only three channels: Turner Classic Movies, WVIZ and SportsTime Ohio.
I began to study the bills, which were built around fee creep, not only from the cable company, but the government as well. I kept wondering why I was paying $6.50 a month to Orange Village as a franchise fee, not to mention the HD technology fee (another $10), state and county tax ($2.53), and receiver fees ($21). None had been explained by the two charming young saleswomen.
Within those several years, the monthly bill grew to more than $250. Finally, I decided not to just cut back on the cable bill, but to change companies. I found I could reduce the bill by combining the phone and cable service and trimming the number of channels. It was a good feeling to finally confront the ballooning charges and save more than $130.
I shifted to Time Warner. Pleasant technicians arrived on time to make the change. Before long, they informed me that the Internet would not work without a wireless router. It was not part of the package I had purchased, they informed me, but I could rent it from Time Warner.
I sensed the unnerving return of fee creep. No, I said, I’m going to get my own. I asked my wife to park her car behind the Time Warner truck so it was trapped until I returned with the router.
The salesman at Micro Center happily informed me that the router’s installation was simple and that I could do it myself. I knew better than this because the truth is there is no longer anything simple in our technological age. It took the cable guys several frustrating hours to make it work.
A few days later, one of the two telephone lines ceased to function. Another technician arrived, scratched his head and said whoever wired the system had done it wrong.
The phone worked for a few more days and then went dead. This happened four more times. Each new technician said the same thing: “Whoever did the wiring didn’t know what they were doing.”
Believe me, this would not have happened in 1948. Neither would my final experience with AT&T.
When I called to cancel, the woman wanted my PIN number. Of course, I had no idea what it was. Then she asked for the secondary form of identification I had listed. Could I please tell her my favorite restaurant?
“Johnny’s,” I blurted.
“The Little Bar?”
“Not close. And I can’t give you a hint.”
I thumbed my brain like the Yellow Pages.
“Nighttown. Bravo. The American Tavern.”
No, I’m sorry. We can’t cancel the service.
I hung up, cursing technology. It was cold, and I put some logs in the fireplace. As I lit a page of The Plain Dealer, a flame leapt up. I rushed to the phone, called AT&T and screamed the name of the restaurant.
“Canceled,” she said.